Creating Opportunities for Students to Think

The other week I shared some of the wonderful thoughts and ideas of Aeriale Johnson‘s often-labeled-as-struggling second-graders as part of a case I hoped to make for not underestimating children’s intellect and for focusing less on teaching academic skills and more on nurturing students’ intellectual lives. But I’m aware that post may have raised the question of how, exactly, do we nurture and support our students’ intellectual lives?

The British writer and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell had this to say about  about that very question. I love his ideas, but he doesn’t really delve into the instructional role that teachers can play—that is, how can we help students become “readers and thinkers of significant thoughts right from the beginning”?

My hunch is that many of you have discovered ways of doing just that. But for me, it almost always involves making a shift from teaching a lesson with an explicit teaching point and teacher modeling to creating some sort of opportunity for kids to start thinking right from the get-go.

In Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI decided not to use the word lesson when talking about instruction, but instead focused chapters around specific kinds of opportunities teachers could create for kids to think, such as:

  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO FIGURE OUT THE BASICS
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO INTERPRET
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO CONSIDER IDEAS AND OPINIONS IN NONFICTION
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO SOLVE PROBLEMS IN THEIR INDEPENDENT READING BOOKS

Many of these opportunities involve kids using a Know/Wonder chart, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I first shared in What Readers Really DoNot to be confused with a KWL (What I Know/What I Want to Know/What I Learned) chart, which asks students to access what’s already in their heads about a topic, consider what they’d like to know about that topic, then share what they learned about it from a text, a Know/Wonder chart invites kids to think about what they know or have figured out in a text and what they wonder about what that (which could be something that confused them or that made them curious).

You can see examples of kids’ thinking using Know/Wonder charts in Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word and When Is a Scaffold Not a Scaffold? But there are other kinds of opportunities I try to create for kids to think. I often invite them to compare and contrast in ways that support discovery and thinking, whether it’s looking at two different biographies of the same person to realize that biographers aren’t just sharing facts, they’re interpreting the life of their subject, or comparing different books by the same author to discover patterns, recurring themes and an author’s obsessions. And recently (with thanks & hopefully forgiveness from Georgia for the Poem A I drafted), I shared this chart with a class of third graders during their poetry unit to get them thinking about how they might revise their poems—and amazingly, without me saying a word, they started talking about nouns and verbs!

What I think is important about all these examples is that in each case I could have delivered an explicit teaching point and modeled my own thinking through a think aloud before releasing responsibility to the students. But instead I did what Eleanor Duckworth writes about in both her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas and her essay in The New Educator, “Helping Students Get to Where Ideas Can Find Them“: I “put the learners in direct contact with the subject matter”(which can be a text, a math problem, a primary source document, etc.), without the need for me, as the teacher, to be an intermediary.

When we do this, Duckworth says, we help “students get their minds, their awareness, and their feelings so active and thoughtful and informed that they are in a place where connections, understandings and new ideas can find them.” On the other hand, she writes, “Contributing our own ideas and thoughts about subject matter almost always short-circuits the students’ thoughts and decreases their interest.” So if we truly want students to think and are serious about nurturing their intellectual lives, perhaps we need to create opportunities that allows students to explore—and even struggle with—subject matter before we step in and teach.

P.S. Thursday was the day that, for better or worse, I really started feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m not sick, thank heaven, but between empty subway cars and bare shelves at supermarkets and drugstores, it’s clear that I have to change how I live, especially when it comes to public transportation and socializing. I’m imagining that many of you are wrestling with the impact of all this as well—along with the work and financial implications if you or your children’s schools are being closed. And that made me wonder if this is really what I should be writing about now, as the world goes strangely silent. But then I caught this Facebook post from Elllin Keene:

Thank you, Ellin for reminding me how lucky we are to spend time with children and what a privilege it is, even now, to spend our days thinking about how to engage and empower them.

Do We Underestimate the Students We Teach?

Last year I shared a story about a fourth grade class that was studying the Middle Ages. Based on formative reading assessments, many of the students had been labeled struggling readers. Yet despite that, they were able to insightfully consider a book about Galileo in a way that allowed them to understand the power and belief systems of that distant and very different time period.

In what seems to me a similar way, teacher and Heinemann Fellow Aeriale Johnson has been tweeting some of the incredibly insightful responses her second graders—many of whom have also been labeled as strugglers—have had to poems and books she’s shared with them.

Here, for instance, is a poem from Tupac Shakur that Aeriale shared with her class:

And here’s what one of her second graders had to say about it:

“I think 2Pac’s duo is his spirit & his body. I think sometimes his body doesn’t do the same thing as his spirit. He says, ‘This is my only regret.’ His regret is his body did something that his spirit didn’t want to do.”

Another poem Aeriale shared with her second graders is Mary Oliver‘s “Wild Geese” (which I didn’t read until my thirties):

Here’s one seven-year-old girl’s response to it:

That same poem also sparked the following exchange on the playground, where one child drew on Oliver’s words to help another deal with a painful interaction:

And finally here’s several of Aeriale’s students considering the meaning of this page of Kwame Alexander’s marvelous book How to Read a Book, with great illustrations by Melissa Sweet:

In all these examples, we see children who’ve been labeled as struggling readers being quite capable of deep thinking and insight. So how do we explain this? For me, it’s connected to something Lilian Katz, the early childhood educator and author of Engaging Children’s Mindsonce said: “We overestimate children academically, while underestimating them intellectually.”

Katz was specifically speaking about young children, but I think this is true right up the grade ladder, from kindergarteners to high school. Some of the fourth graders I worked with, for instance, and the second graders Aeriale teaches, may indeed struggle with academic skills like identifying the main idea of a text or reading without making significant miscues. But intellectually, they are quite capable of thinking deeply and deriving significant meaning from texts. The problem is that too often schools place more value and emphasis on those academic skills than on students’ intellectual lives. And I think we do that to the detriment of students.

First, unlike speaking and understanding speech, human brains are not hard-wired for reading. As you can see below, reading is an extremely complex act that involves many areas of the brain, which is why learning to read can be challenging for many. Yet what better motivation can there be to take on that hard and sometimes frustrating work of learning to read than to feel that books have something important and vital to give you in a way that adds meaning to your life? Stickers? Pizza? A grade? I don’t think so.

And then there’s the question of those academic skills we spend so much time teaching and assessing. In a recent Position Statement, NCTE stated their belief that “Utilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills devoid of meaning can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways. . . . In addition, prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction misidentifies the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.”

And in their wise and wonderful book, Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have this to say about skills:

“In too many places, we ask kids to read (and write) so we can give them a grade that shows they’ve learned some skills someone has decided they need to know. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can discover, so that we change—change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world—then those skills will be for naught.”

The fourth graders I worked with and the second graders Aeriale teaches were engaging with texts in ways that changed how they looked at themselves and the world they lived in. My hunch—and my experience—has led me to believe that if we carve out space for students to show us what they’re intellectually capable of, many who’ve been labeled as struggling have incredibly thoughtful and insightful things to say. So let’s not underestimate them by narrowly focusing on a diet of skills. Instead, let’s nurture, support and celebrate our students’ intellectual lives.

The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream